SPECIAL: Nigeria’s N18 billion satellites ‘operated’ from overseas as space agency deteriorates
More than two decades after Nigeria ramped up its interest in space science and technology with the creation of the National Space Research and Development Agency, NASRDA, to steer an initial $93 million investment in space, the agency remains furthest from its projected outcome.
Nigeria’s seeming inability to access two of its earth observation satellites (NigeriaSat-2 and NigeriaSat-X) with a combined value in excess of £35 million (N18.2 billion), according to public records, underscores the comatose state of the once-virile space agency.
Established in the nascent stages of the then-President Olusegun Obasanjo administration, NASRDA got off to a terrific start in the early 2000s as collaborations with the United Kingdom-based technology firm, SSTL, led to the launch of Nigeria’s first satellite, NigeriaSat-1, reportedly worth $30 million in 2003, helping the country achieve elite status amongst its global counterparts with outer space programmes.
The agency, chiselled into the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology, slipped into a downward spiral in late 2007, following the ill-fated launch of the Chinese-built communications satellite, NigComSat-1.
The orbiter, valued at over $300 million failed in space only a year after it was launched. It was later replaced with NigComSat-1R, which now provides Internet and broadcast services in Nigeria – and yanked off NASRDA’s brief.
Acquisition of more satellites
With the phasing out of Nigeria’s first satellite, NigeriaSat-1, by the former President Goodluck Jonathan administration, the country’s most recent spacecraft (NigeriaSat-2/X) was launched in 2011 by a Ukrainian rocket from a Russian military base, officials said.
The earth observation satellites, which were orbited for disaster and environmental surveillance missions, were programmed to transmit information to a ground receiving station installed for an undisclosed amount of money at NASRDA base in the Federal Capital Territory, FCT, Abuja.
Defective ground station equipment
Multiple sources at the space agency told Peoples Gazette that NASRDA has long been unable to access information from the country’s earth observation satellites due to the “inoperative” ground station.
“We can’t access our geographical information satellites since the ground station broke down completely in 2014,” a long-time NASRDA employee disclosed to the Gazette.
Another source pointed out: “If we need information about our geographical information system, it’s either we go to other countries that have satellites that cover Nigeria or we pay China to access our satellites and download information for us.”
All the officials contacted by the Gazette spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing their active engagement status and a lack of clearance to give sensitive information to journalists.
They explained that the moribund state of the ground station was partly linked to the President Muhammadu Buhari administration’s scant interest in science and technology and the influence of a “strong cabal” within the agency which benefits from the estacodes derived from frequent foreign trips to retrieve information from Nigeria’s satellites.
The Gazette could not independently verify the officials’ claims and presidency spokesmen declined to comment.
Huge revenue losses
Various sources revealed that the breakdown of the ground station had equally resulted in the loss of revenue for the country.
“The earth observation satellites cover the whole of West and East Africa,” an official said. “A lot of countries in these subregions do not have satellite stations. So, they usually paid (a) substantial amount (of money) for NASRDA to get geographical information about their regions.”
“We also need these services for ourselves. One of the satellites is meant to detect natural disasters before they happen, while the other is meant to take images at least once a day to capture migration of people, which can be useful in the fight against terrorism,” the source added.
An economist Chuma Eze told the Gazette that the satellites had the potential to earn Nigeria a significant amount in revenues if they were properly maintained.
“If they prioritise servicing the satellite, Nigeria could earn good revenues to shore up its dwindling resources by providing critical information to other Sub-Saharan Africa countries,” Mr. Eze said. “But like every other sector, Nigerian satellite technology has become a shadow of its old self.”
Sequel to the unavailability of data to be retrieved from the satellites due to the defective ground station, the data management department at the space agency has remained redundant for years.
“Out of over 1000 workers at the Abuja head office, far less than 100 actually have anything to do,” an official knowledgeable about the department’s internal affairs said. “Isn’t it awkward that for a science agency like NASRDA, the only active departments are the ones handling administration, educational training, procurement, and accounts?”
When the Gazette visited NASRDA’s Abuja office earlier this month, the facility looked nearly deserted with only a few personnel on the ground.
Plagued by other crises
“The centre for space transport in Lagos is as good as inoperative as the hopes of Nigeria launching its own satellite by itself has remained an illusion,” one of the sources said. “The jet engine lab in Zamfara, which is meant to produce jet engines for Nigeria has also remained non-functional.”
The national space agency has, nonetheless, continued to receive budgetary allocations from the federal purse for contributing little in return.
NASRDA’s salaries and wages in the 2021 fiscal plan were pegged at over N3 billion. Checks by the Gazette on the agency’s 2021 budget also uncovered repetitive budgetary provisions.
When the Gazette contacted Felix Ale, head of NASRDA’s Media and Corporate Communications division, the official initially declined to confirm the operational status of the ground station.
“The ground station of a space organisation is a security asset that is not meant to be discussed in public,” said Mr. Ale.
When told that Nigerians deserved to know the condition of the facility because it is being funded by public funds, he responded: “The ground station is working but requires upgrading.”
When asked to clarify the upgrading required, the official declined further comments, suggesting that no official was sent to foreign nations to retrieve information from Nigeria’s satellites.
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